If you’ve never experienced a fire season before, it’s hard to explain the emotional, physical and sensory effects of having the world immolate before your eyes.
I spent decades with only a passing knowledge of wildfires. I’d read about smoke jumpers and fire seasons, sure. I’d seen the news videos of planes and helicopters dumping water on burning hillsides. I have distinct memories of images of the California countryside at night with a raging fire threatening a neighborhood development and reports of evacuations and deaths. It seemed awful and cruel and arbitrary — but also like something happening in a distant part of the world. I empathized, but I didn’t understand.
Then I moved West. I arrived in my new home in Montana in 2017 only 10 days before a July thunderstorm tore through the Bitterroot Valley and ignited a fire that burned for two months and devastated 53,902 acres of land 20 miles from my home.
If you’re lucky, it comes on slowly. You awake one morning and you notice the smell. For me, it was the distinct smell of a campfire having just been extinguished. It’s an uncanny sensation that doesn’t fade. The air is hazy; the blue sky fades to a cloudy white in the direction of the fire. Before long, the smell and the haze increase. For me, a dull headache begins alongside a tickle in the back of my throat, similar to the way I feel when spring allergies begin.
If the fire isn’t contained, every hour gets worse from there, and the world takes on an apocalyptic quality. That first Montana summer, I remember sitting in the bleachers of Missoula’s minor league baseball stadium. At the beer stand, I gazed out across the valley and to see an unmoving column of smoke shaped like the funnel of a tornado thousands of feet high.
Its plume widened until it mingled with the clouds above, forming an oppressive ashy dome over my town. Behind it the sun set, drawing out otherworldly reds and yellows. It felt like living on an uninhabitable planet. They never told me that the sunsets at the end of the world would be so striking.
Then even those colors fade. You wake up in darkness and you’re left with soot — in the sky, on your car, your windows, your driveway, your trees, your lawn. Eventually, those allergy feelings turn into a deeper malaise, which is fed by the sepia skies that resemble nuclear winter.
Leaving the house feels both pointless and dangerous. My first fire season, I was stopped during a run by a police officer who told me to go home immediately. It simply wasn’t safe to be breathing the air outside, he told me.
This is what happens if you’re one of the lucky ones who are affected only by the byproduct of those raging fires. I consider myself fortunate to have never seen one from less than a dozen or so miles away. But for those who encounter them — or have to live in their proximity, and grapple with the long-term health ramifications — it is hell on earth.
At a biometrics conference in 2019, I listened to a Department of Homeland Security official give a presentation on the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., which was fueled by nearly 90-mile-an-hour wind gusts. He was there to talk about the use of cutting-edge technology to identify the charred remains of some of the fire’s more than 80 victims. The presenter’s anecdotes included the story of one couple who awoke in the night because their Amazon Alexa smart speaker was chirping that it had been disconnected. When they came to, they saw two-thirds of their house ablaze. They managed to escape; their pets and possessions did not.
Since I moved West, I’ve been preoccupied with this question: Would Americans feel a greater sense of alarm about our rapidly warming planet and the disastrous, perhaps irreversible effects of climate change if everyone could experience a fire season in person? Would cable news hosts devote the same nonstop coverage to fires as they do for hurricanes if more of their executives woke up each morning to falling ash? Would more lawmakers care if it looked like this outside the Capitol at high noon?
The American West does not have a monopoly on climate-related disasters. Hurricane seasons grow worse each year and devastating earthquakes loom. The flooding in the Midwest and storms like the recent derecho in Iowa are calamities that deserve equal attention. They’re also urgent alarm bells. Everyone on earth right now is experiencing unpredictable and dire weather. No region is alone in experiencing the tragedy of our dying planet.
I’m not so naïve as to think that all Americans would, say, support a Green New Deal if they had to confront a California fire season head-on — that’s not even the case for California residents! But there is a surrealness to these wildfires and their profound impact that remains difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced them.
Unlike a storm that makes landfall and barrels through, leaving destruction in its path, the encroaching infernos descend for days, weeks, even months, and become part of our lives. It feels both like the end of days and like the new normal — a stultifying Instagram filter fitted over our eyes at all times.
The point of this column isn’t to guilt people for where they live or what they’ve experienced, but to convey the desperation that so many Americans are feeling right now. It’s an anxiety that deepens each year. One that turns cloudless summer days in July into harbingers of misery. It’s a psychological toll, as much as it is physical. One that, while you’re living through it, renders it difficult to see a healthy future for the earth through all the smoke.